REVIEW: The War – A Ken Burns Film (Soundtrack – Boxed Set)

I have a problem. Ken Burns’ newest documentary, The War, which provides a comprehensive look at World War II and is now showing on PBS, has also generated a four CD boxed set of music. The problem is that it’s so freakin’ good that I’m afraid I’m in danger of overselling it, but at the same time I can’t help myself — it’s that remarkable.

Although Burns gets a lot of admiration for his documentaries – and deservedly so – I think that he’s sometimes shortchanged by the lesser amount of recognition given to his ability to choose unforgettable music to accompany those films. With the obvious exception of his documentary on jazz, you seldom hear a lot about that aspect of his work. I’d like to do my humble best to correct that, or at least begin the process.

I was born a little too late to experience the music of the era when it was originally performed, but I did grow up with it around me and have collected and enjoyed it for many years. That being said, you can believe me when I tell you that Burns was relentless and dedicated in his efforts to provide a broad spectrum of music appropriate to this film, and he has been amazingly successful.

But even more startling is how he’s gone beyond the sounds from that period and added in a little modern music – including new stuff from Norah Jones and Wynton Marsalis – that still manages to evoke that historical time. It’s quite an accomplishment and one that I hope will help draw younger music lovers to this collection, where they just might find that the original music of the era is something special too.

The boxed set consists of four CDs, including the nominal soundtrack album (which is available separately), accompanied by a disc of jukebox hits of the era, another of hit dance tunes, and finally one with mostly classical music that reflects the often somber mood of the film.

Disc one, the main soundtrack album, includes Norah Jones singing “American Anthem,” a previously unreleased performance that shows off her distinctive talents, and the same song also closes the album in a complementary instrumental take. This disc also showcases the talents of current jazz icon Wynton Marsalis, who took a major role in both composing and performing for the project, and his contributions are heard on several pieces.

The same disc also includes some tracks from the era, such as big band tunes from Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, and nice vocals from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and others, but the real treasure trove of period music is found on discs two and three.

Disc two is titled Sentimental Journey, and encompasses what might have been a playlist from a wartime jukebox. Some of the biggest and best hits of the day are here, with tunes that vary from the pure sentiment of Tommy Dorsey’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” or Harry James’ “I’ll Get By,” to big band novelties like Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug.” There’s even a surprise or two, such as Louis Armstrong’s version of “Memories Of You,” a song normally associated with Benny Goodman.

Disc three, I’m Beginning To See The Light, continues the hit parade with a few memorable vocals but is mostly filled with instrumental dance music from the swing bands. It’s an outstanding collection of tracks that includes the driving, infectious sound of big band music at its best. Tunes such as Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” are among those that are obvious choices, but again they’ve included some surprises.

A good example is “Tuxedo Junction,” but rather than the more typically heard (but still first-rate) Miller version, we’re treated to the original from the song’s composer, Erskine Hawkins. Burns has also included some outstanding examples of songs that were hits at the time, but have been largely forgotten since. A good example, the gorgeously voiced Anita O’Day singing her hit “Let Me Off Uptown,” with the Gene Krupa Orchestra.

And finally, disc four, Songs Without Words, is filled with classical pieces, timeless compositions that perfectly fit the often grave and serious subject matter. These include musical expressions from some of the greatest composers of all time, including Liszt, Dvorák, and Fauré, but even here Burns has paid homage to the era. He’s included Copland’s “Concerto For Clarinet, Strings, Harp, And Piano,” with a solo by Benny Goodman, who often played classical music and dazzled.

I’ve only touched on the huge number of tracks in this set, so I would encourage everyone to follow the links below. The boxed set link will take you to a list all songs. The individual soundtrack link lists only the tracks on that album but includes sample sound clips.

This is an outstanding collection of music, highly recommended for music lovers of any age, and a perfect fit for Ken Burns’ latest documentary masterpiece.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The War – A Ken Burns Film (Soundtrack – Boxed Set)

  1. Apparently these CD’s don’t have ALL the music in the film. There were passages where the narrator was accompanied by a lone piano player. It was so beautiful that the commentator was just an irritation. I didn’t listen to a word he said. I wish I could remember the names of the songs. They were very recognizable and they were the most beautiful music in the entire film. But I don’t see them listed in the playlist of the CD boxed set. Too bad. I was going to buy it if this music was included.


  2. Oddly enough, I noticed that too — I was watching the show and TWICE heard one of my favorites, “In A Sentimental Mood” — but it’s nowhere to be found on any of the 4 CDs. Still a great soundtrack album though.


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